Fed up and demanding change, grassroots initiatives by citizen reformers are beginning to make an impact.
The vast majority of Americans believe the political system is rigged in favor of the super-rich and organizations representing corporate interests. The good news is that most Americans are in favor of reform measures designed to unrig the system and restore political power to the people. A growing number of grassroots initiatives have emerged to take on gerrymandering, restrictive voting practices, polarization and tribalism, and the influence of big money/lobbying. Unfortunately, their stories aren’t getting told or are being drowned out by the partisan battles being waged largely by the more extreme segments of the political landscape.
There are more than 130 non-partisan or cross-partisan organizations dedicated to one form or another of reform measures to fight corruption and restore a voice to everyday citizens. RepresentUS, one of those organizations, produced a video with Jennifer Lawrence which describes just how rigged our system is. The video cites a Princeton University study which concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress (according to a 2018 Gallup poll) and there is a good reason why. The Princeton study looked at 1800 public opinion polls over a 20-year period and found that no matter how much support from average Americans, there is only a 30% chance that a law will be passed. “Preferences of the average American have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically insignificant impact on public policy.”
The system doesn’t work, in large part, because of the influence of Big Money and lobbyists. Politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election after they get into office. In certain races, you would have to raise $45,000 every single day, 365 days a year, for 6 years in order to raise enough money to win (per OpenSecrets.org). Politicians have become completely dependent upon the 0.05% of Americans (billionaires and special interest groups) who fund their campaigns.
Many voters feel their vote does not count. According to FairVote, only 14% of House campaigns are actually competitive, in large part due to gerrymandering – the way that politicians (Democrats and Republicans) draw up congressional districts.
In addition to believing their vote does not count, citizens have been frustrated by the increasing polarization that has us caught in a spiral of conflict and division. But new research based on a large-scale national survey of Americans ( “Hidden Tribes – A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”) uncovered a different story. While it provides substantial evidence of deep polarization and growing tribalism, it also provides some evidence for optimism, showing that 77 percent of Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together.
America’s political landscape, the study finds, “is much more complicated than the binary split between liberals and conservatives often depicted in the national conversation.” The research identifies seven segments of Americans (or “tribes”) who are distinguished by differences in their underlying beliefs and attitudes. Among the seven tribes is an “Exhausted Majority,” whose members do not conform to either partisan ideology. “The Exhausted Majority contains distinct groups of people with varying degrees of political understanding and activism. But they share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation… They overwhelmingly believe that the American government is rigged to serve the rich and influential, and they want things to change.”
That is where non-partisan or cross-partisan reform organizations come in. Not many are aware that there are more than 130 such organizations working to foster a more representative, functional, and accountable government through a variety of strategies across three themes: Civic Engagement, Electoral Systems and Campaigns, and Governance and Policy Making.
RepresentUS, for example, has bundled a number of reforms into a model law and named it the American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), including:
End gerrymandering with independent re-districting commissions
Create ranked choice voting so third parties and independents can run and win
Implement automatic voter registration and vote from home
Overhaul lobbying and ethics laws, and close the revolving door so politicians can’t be bribed with high paying job offers
Mandate full transparency of political spending, so we know who’s trying to buy influence
Give every voter a $50 or $100 tax voucher so politicians spend time fund-raising from their constituents, not just that 0.05%
When surveyed, 87% of Americans believe the AACA should be the law of the land (91% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans). Since Congress has little incentive to enact such a reform, despite such overwhelming support from the American public, RepresentUS has adopted a grassroots strategy to promote reform at the state and local levels across the country. As of mid-April, 103 anti-corruption acts have been passed.
Ordinary citizens are stepping up, finding their voice, and making a difference. Almost by accident, Katie Fahey started a political movement in Michigan and changed careers. Feeling that divisiveness in politics had reached a critical point following the 2016 election, Fahey posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to help her take on gerrymandering. In a few short months, that group of volunteers (which grew to 5000) decided they were going to amend Michigan’s constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to end gerrymandering once and for all. Last November, Michigan voters approved that amendment.
Last year, the Chamberlain Project Foundation and the Foundation for Independent Voter Education launched a joint effort in Maine to make sure voters were comfortable and aware of ranked choice voting, which helps broaden candidate pools beyond two parties, increase voter turnout and give more power to each vote. Winners of one of the 2018 American Civic Collaboration Awards, which highlight outstanding efforts of civic collaboration making impacts in local, national and youth communities, these foundations’ work created a transformational change in the way the state of Maine elects its leaders,
Such grassroots approaches mirror what has worked throughout American history — passing state laws leads to federal victory, as reflected in a Bloomberg News study. The Women’s Suffrage and the Interracial Marriage movements are good examples. The success of grassroot initiatives to date is just the beginning, as the tipping point may likely require a tenfold increase in such state and local level reforms.
American Promise, another cross-partisan reform organization, is leading an effort to pass a 28th Amendment, which would put the rights of individual citizens before the privileges of concentrated money, corporations, unions, political parties, and superPACs.
At the recent Unrig Summit in Nashville, thousands of democracy reform advocates—including citizens, politicians and celebrities—from both sides of the aisle — came together to share knowledge and develop tangible democratic reform actions. Issue One, Unite America and Vote at Home, joined RepresentUS and American Promise in organizing the summit, which included members of many other reform organizations. The Bridge Alliance and the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers are helpful organizations to learn more about and become active supporters of the broad array of democratic reform organizations.
The challenge over the coming decade will be to grow these and new grassroots movements and substantially expand their financial base. If not, the promise of real reform will not be realized. Collectively, this democracy reform movement engages fewer than three million Americans today and has an annual operating spend of less than $150M.
Rob Stein of the Cross-Partisan Action Network believes that the mission of these democratic reform organizations “should be to become a force for change – a cause – which supports open-minded Republicans, Democrats and Independents passionately committed to a cross-partisan agenda that promotes country over party, rigid ideology, and/or a single-issue agenda.” Stein observes that “the majority of these groups remain relatively small and currently lack a shared strategic vision, integrated operations, the data analytics or financial resources necessary to build a sustainable constituency. However, in the aggregate, they represent a potentially powerful alliance because a meaningful number of them have respected managers, board members, supporters, programs and capacities, are ready to expand their operations and are poised to mobilize a potent new cross-partisan constituency.”
As an umbrella entity representing nearly 100 of these democratic reform organizations, the Bridge Alliance says that “it is now widely understood that for maximum effectiveness and productivity, these organizations must work together to boost efficiency in order to leverage funding and impact… Despite the many noteworthy achievements in reforming and revitalizing our political process, too few Americans know there is a cohesive, organized movement in-process. This must change, to demonstrate that there is an alternative for those who’ve grown weary of the party-first, establishment quo paradigm.”
My wife and I were encouraged to see several democratic reform organizations come together on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 26, when the North Carolina and Maryland landmark gerrymandering cases initiated oral arguments before the court. FairVote, Common Cause, Unite America, and OneVirginia2021.org were all present to speak about how politicians in both states had drawn voting districts so as to protect incumbents and the parties in control of their respective state legislatures (Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland). This was a good example of collaboration among reform organizations, uniting to inform the public and draw attention to how gerrymandering undermines the vote of individual citizens.
Watch the RepresentUS video and check out some of the democratic reform organizations mentioned above. You will see what many citizen reformers are doing to unrig our political system, working across party lines – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Please share your thoughts and, particularly, any inspiring stories of citizens you know that are taking action to put voters over parties, lobbyists and special interests.